The word workers: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee shared many things, among them a reverence for seeing language breathed into life.
"We're some busy, old people," joked Ruby Dee one afternoon in late January about her and husband's respective schedules. Dee was preparing to leave for New Zealand for eight weeks to shoot a film titled Number Two. Ossie Davis was on his way to Miami, New Orleans and Las Vegas for a six-week shoot of the film Retirement. He was in Miami when he passed.
"Retirement" is not a word one associates with Dee or Davis. Their latest projects were but a continuation of their formidable careers as actors, writers and activists, with 130 total years' experience between them.
They've received every possible accolade, including the 1993 Writers Guild Award for African American Pioneers (Davis), the Silver Circle Award in 1994 from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1995, a 2001 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award and, most recently, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
Additionally, their 56-year marriage (since December 1948) seems an anomaly in an industry known for Vegas-quick commitment and easy-like-Sunday morning dissolution. To say they are role models is an understatement. Dee and Davis personify the meaning of "partnership" so completely that it's sometimes a challenge to think of them separately even now, three months after Davis passed away.
Like all things timeless and classic, Dee and Davis's art and wisdom transcend the temporal, the material. They have been radical in the truest sense, piercing through to the heart of matters, thereby teaching us what matters most. For each and both of them, it's always been about passion, commitment and respect for the word.
The Art of Storytelling
"We have to remember, in the beginning was the word," Davis said. Through the spoken and written word, he continued, "we become aware of ourselves as members of groups, as tribes, as families. I see myself as having an advantage of coming up in surroundings where people had a particular affection for the word. My mother and father were storytellers. And that's a special thing to us in the family and in the community."
Dee recalled that, "From my mother, I learned to appreciate tire poets, to appreciate reading. Ossie used to read and tell stories to [our] kids, and they just loved it! They developed the communication of storytelling."
It's not just for her own private or familial sustenance that Dee has such commitment to the word, but to keep its power alive for the audience as well. In the Stagebill for her 1999 one-woman show, My One Good Nerve, which was produced by Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Davis, and adapted from Dee's book My One Good Nerve (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., October 1998), Dee wrote: "One of the reasons I do this (perform) is because I call myself a reader, and I don't want reading to go out of style, to be relegated to old fashioned, relegated to passe. Something about electronic so often misses spirit, misses something of attitude, something of style. A word is so much more than a word. It's also vibration and dance." The effect of that vibration, that dance, is something that Dee said, "I can feel from the audience. They understand that we have a music in common.
"When I'm at my best reading," she continued, "there's something about the author that comes through to me. You get something that is spirit and intangible and that spells what is genius. A good writer is like a good painter. When you look at a Rembrandt, you know it's a Rembrandt. The spirit comes through the fingers. In the case of a writer, the spirit comes through the mind and finds unique expression, a unique vibration for the placement and use of words. They breathe a few sentences and you know where they're coming from, who they are, how they feel about life, what life is all about."
Dee finds it difficult to limit her passion for writers, counting among her favorites a diverse list that includes Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Childress, Edwidge Danticat, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, Haki R. Madhubuti and Paule Marshall. "And, of course," she adds, "for my whole life since I first read her, Zora Neale Hurston."
Davis's list was very different. "My favorite writers [are] Shakespeare, David and the Psalms, Oscar Wilde," he said. "I love Walter Mosley and I love (James) Baldwin."
In Their Own Words
Davis began his own career as a writer in 1939, while performing with Harlem's Rose McClendon Players. In 1961, he wrote the critically acclaimed Broadway play Purlie Victorious, which starred Davis, Dee, Godfrey Cambridge, Alan Alda, Helen Martin and Beah Richards. He later wrote the screen adaptation for Purlie Victorious in 1963 (titled Gone Are the Days) and the musical adaptation of Purlie in 1970. Cleavon Little and Melba Moore both won Tony Awards for their starring roles in the musical.
Dee's writing career blossomed in 1978, when her original "poedansical" (poetry, dance and music) Two-Bit Gardens was work shopped at producer Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City. Dee continued to develop the piece, changing the title to Take It From the Top! and enlisting their son Guy to compose its music. In 1979, producer Woodie King staged a successful full-house run of the production.
Steeped in theater backgrounds--where the writer is king (or queen)--Dee and Davis's regard for the word is no surprise. But what of the "electronic" that Dee referred to? Although their film, television and recording credits as writers and performers are equally stellar, Davis observed that the importance of language "is constantly under assault by the technology, which we impose upon the words."
"So," he continued, "somebody has to say, 'Look, I don't mind technology. I don't mind any stress you want to put the words to. But we do not want you to injure the word, we do not want you to insult the word, we do not want you to kill the word with lying and hype and nonsense and junk.'"
The Hollywood Effect
This process, perceived or real, of the Hollywood Machine chewing up the word (and the writer) and spitting them out in an unrecognizable form is all too familiar to many writers, yet African American writers seem to experience it in the extreme. Davis's experience adapting Purlie Victorious for film wasn't a creative, commercial or critical highlight. In the late 1960s, when producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. appealed to him to rewrite Arnold Perl's script adaptation of the Chester Himes novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, Davis initially cautioned Goldwyn that Perl's version was disappearing with each rewrite. Goldwyn asked Davis to continue because he wanted the script to authentically represent black life. Davis's major rewrite not only earned him a cowriter screen credit with Perl, it also convinced Goldwyn and United Artists Studios to hire Davis as the film's director, marking his directorial debut in 1970.
While Davis considered his work on Cotton to be some of his best as a director, he acknowledged that, "There is a kind of battle between Hollywood, which says 'a picture is worth a thousand words,' and the stage, which says, 'it is the word that we are after, it is the thought that makes the thing have substance.'" Davis continued, "In motion pictures, the great directors have to take care of the balance of the word and the picture. They know the danger in the picture world is to overcrowd the senses with detail, too much of muchness. The senses become numb and nothing happens."
Dee agreed and added that, "If the voice behind the animation understands that the word is the coin of the spirit of a particular person in a particular way, then the word has a life and it can speak to people. We're deeply affected."
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was one media outlet where Dee and Davis found the space to exercise their creative voices, particularly Dee's talents as a writer and producer. The groundbreaking series With Ossie and Ruby (1980-1982), A Walk Through the Twentieth Century With Bill Moyers (1984), and Zora Is My Name! (1990) are some of the most acclaimed programming Dee and Davis wrote and produced for PBS. "One of the marvelous things that happened to us is [that] they let us do whatever we wanted to do," Dee pointed out.
On Becoming Political
That freedom to do what they wanted to do was not always a luxury afforded to them. During the McCarthy era, they were blacklisted, targeted and labeled as Communist fronters and racial agitators because of their activity in the National Committee to Abolish the House Un--American Activities Committee and the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.
"The stories that [my parents] told knit us together with the culture, and on the basis of the culture we thought of our selves as a people" Davis explained. "And we thought, if we're people we have certain rights. If we have certain rights, and we want to become active about those rights, we become political. We learned that certain steps we took in the political arena made us dangerous to the people who controlled things--the white community that didn't want certain activities."
By obstructing the careers of those artists targeted, the government hoped to hinder their social activism as well, including black artists who spoke out for civil rights and against racism. Davis shared his experience in the 1998 documentary Scandalize My Name: Stories From the Blacklist (Unapix/Urban Works). Many artists didn't survive the persecutions. Dee and Davis did. "Ruby and I were able to work and not starve to death," Davis said, "because we were able to create a relationship with our own people that constituted an audience that would [support] our product whether Hollywood bought it or not. One of the most important things the black artist has to learn early on is how to belong to black people."
For Dee, that survival also depends on spiritual law. "Somehow, the things that you develop a passion for also feed you, if you pay attention," she advised. "It's like the Bible says: 'Seek ye first the kingdom,' those things that you really love to do. And when some crisis comes along, you're so busy pursuing the passion that you keep doing it and keep doing it. You seem to be drawn into that thing that will also pay your bills."
A Passion for Justice
That passion left them undaunted in the fight for social justice, where they remained front and center, alongside other warriors of their day. Icons of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., sought Dee and Davis out. They remained outspoken into the new millennium. Today, Martin and Coretta King's eldest child, Yolanda, credits Dee and Davis with inspiring and motivating her in her own work.
"I became aware of them in my teens, when I was looking for role models," King says. "As a young person trying to come to grips with whether or not I could really make a contribution in the arts, as an actor, I really struggled. It was Ruby and Ossie and their work that let me know it was all right. They've been consistent in being able to take a stand. I'm so thankful for what they have achieved." King costarred with Davis in the 2000 CBS television movie The Secret Path.
Both King and Attallah, Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz's eldest daughter, were special guests during the Los Angeles run of My One Good Nerve, at Dee's post-performance conversations titled Ruby Friends. It seemed to be a passing of the torch between two different generations talking 'bout a revolution.
"The Davises provide a legacy for us to put into action," says writer/producer Gay Iris Parker, who was associate producer on My One Good Nerve. "As a couple, you saw tenderness. As a team, you saw a dynamic force. Their passion, commitment, warmth and respect were seen twenty-four/seven, not just when the cameras were rolling."
For a brief moment on February 4, the cameras stopped rolling when Davis passed away. In a literal homegoing, he returned to Harlem--where his career began--to his wake at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and funeral services at Riverside Church on February 12.
"A Great Soul"
If Davis once eulogized Malcolm X as "our own black shining prince," then we must eulogize Davis as our own Davidic king, whose words will bless generations even to the end of the age.
"Ossie really reminded us where we need to be and where we could be, both as African American people, and as a community," says Yolanda King. "What a tremendous light, a great soul. He is totally irreplaceable."
During what was perhaps his last interview, Davis seemingly prophesied about being irreplaceable, pointing out that "the presenter of the word is no longer there, but we have the words."
This June, Davis's words will be given new life when Purlie opens at the Pasadena Playhouse, according to Gay Parker. The musical heads to Broadway in spring 2006.
So, while we can be assured of a future for Davis and Dee's words and work, Dee hoped for that eternity, for all writers. "Imagine a future that doesn't (yet) exist," she encouraged. "Look through the tunnel of experiences and project a future, what the human condition is crying for that nobody's expressing. Our souls are in supplication looking for the light on things that haven't been thought yet. This space that we have--this mental, spiritual space--is largely untapped. It's a stunning place [that will] make the invention of television seem like child's play."
To which Davis added: "The history of America has yet to be told. The work remains to be done, from research to execution. All I can say to you is to urge you to get busy digging into the rich soil, and to wish you luck. The story of America needs desperately to be told, and at the center of that story, you'll find the African American. Go get it."
Sharon D. Johnson is a screenwriter, journalist and activist in Los Angeles, California.
Together: Books by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis
With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together HarperCollins, January 2000 $16.95, ISBN 0688-175-821
Ruby Dee My One Good Nerve John Wiley & Sons, Inc. October 1998, $16.95, ISBN 0-471-317-047
Tower to Heaven Illustrated by Jennifer Bent Henry Holt and Company April 1991, ISBN 0-805-01460-8
Two Ways to Count to Ten: A Liberian Folktale Illustrated by Susan Meddaugh Henry Holt and Company, March 1991, $6.95, ISBN 0-805-01314-8
Glowchild and Other Poems Selected edited by Ruby Dee Third Press Review of Books December 1972 ISBN 0-893-88040-X
Ossie Davis Just Like Martin Penguin Books, December 1994 $5.99, ISBN 0-140-37095-1
Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass Puffin, August 1990, $4.99 ISBN 0-140-343-555
Langston: A Play Dell Publishing Co., Inc., October 1982, ISBN 0-385-28543-4
Purlie Victorious: A Comedy in Three Acts Samuel French, Inc., January 1961, ISBN 0-573-61435-0
Purlie Victorious: Commemorative Edition edited by Nora D. Day Emmalyn Enterprises, December 1993, ISBN 0-963-84160-2
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|Author:||Johnson, Sharon D.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||May 1, 2005|
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